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Friday, May 18, 2007

Talk of Banning Ads Only Curbs Free Speech, Does Nothing to Address Alcohol Abuse

Two recent news articles about alcohol and advertising caught my attention. First, you should know two things: I like to have a drink now and again -- you might have realized that by the name of this blog! -- and, I've made a good chunk of my living for the last 24 years in advertising and public relations.

My attitude is that if a product is legal, the marketers of that product ought to be able to legally advertise it so long as the methods of advertising the product do not suggest a usage for the product that goes outside legal boundaries. For instance, sports cars are a legal product. They can and should be advertised. However, GM should not be allowed to advertise that the Corvette is particularly we suited for night racing on neighborhood streets at 130 miles per hour.

That's why I don't see a problem advertising beer, wine and spirits. The industry has adopted rules to avoid marketing the products to underage consumers, which is a good thing. The fact of the matter is that it would be a real waste of media budgets and pretty expensive for alcohol marketers to decide to run ads when kids and not adults are watching television. The problem comes in when you have media vehicles that attract a large number of legal age drinkers, but also come into contact with underage audiences.

That leads us to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) which operates the commuter rail "T" and buses in the Boston area. The MBTA banned cigarette ads a few years ago and now they are being pressured to ban alcohol advertising. A group pushing the ban says an ad on the T is like placing alcohol ads on school buses.

The Massachusetts Banding Together Against Alcohol Advertising Collaborative says it wants the MBTA to stop accepting the ads and for the state legislature to stop requiring the public transportation system to maximize revenues by accepting the ads. It is expected the MBTA Board will have to respond to the pressure from the group by at least discussing the matter.

The other example comes from the Midwest, where the Big Ten Network has decided against accepting any alcohol ads. Run by the Big Ten Conference, which includes 11 schools such as Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota, voted last June to ban alcohol ads on the network. The new service will televise football, men's and women's basketball games and other programming from each of the member universities. The network will be carried on cable systems nationwide.

The Campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV is ecstatic about the Big Ten Network ban. Meanwhile, no one has produced any data showing the percentage of underage consumers that will watch the network. Obviously, much of the student bodies at the schools are not 21 years old. Many of the athletes covered by the network will also not legally be able to take a drink. The fact is that many do and, ban or no ban, they still will.

The move to ban alcohol ads picks up steam from time to time. It accomplishes very little other than having the potential of draining revenues from organizations that need the funds. What would happen if it took a rate hike on the T in Boston to make up for lost ad revenue? Perhaps Big Ten schools will not miss the revenue, then again they might have fewer dollars to put into scholarships for deserving students.

Beyond the economics, banning any form of free speech, even speech that is for commercial purposes, is troubling. If we say nothing to support the beer, wine and spirit marketers today, can we really protest it when they decide that ads that might be critical of the government or of a particular policy do not belong on the T or on the Big Ten Network?

It is time to halt the creep of political correctness.

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